By Shaun Chornobroff
On the practice court bearing his name, Jason Thompson is still clearly a behemoth amongst young men.
The greatest player to ever don the cranberry and white may be well removed from dominating Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). But to the current Broncs, the 12th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft and recently hired special assistant to the head coach offers something unique.
To a team that is well established along the perimeter, with multiple preseason all-conference selections, Thompson’s tutelage of a trio of high-potential centers can prove pivotal to a team with aspirations of winning a championship.
“They should be like sponges and learn from Jay and take everything that he’s saying to them because he’s been there, he’s done it.” Men’s basketball head coach Kevin Baggett said of the impact Thompson can have on his team. “… Him getting to the highest level, I can’t teach that, I’ve never been at the highest level in the NBA. He’s a value and those guys should be sponges, and they are.”
After recently retiring following a 15 season professional basketball career that included nine seasons in the NBA and multiple seasons abroad, Thompson has accrued a wealth of experience that can now trickle down to the players he’s coaching.
“He’s just teaching us the IQ part of it,” said graduate student center Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson. “Little touches around the rim, what to do on handoffs, ball screens, stuff like that. He’s just given us a lot of his knowledge that he’s gained over the years.”
Last season, thanks to injuries and a lack of depth, Ogemuno-Johnson was the lone threatening presence in the middle for Rider. The 6-foot-8-inch, 210 pound Nigerian averaged 8.6 points and seven rebounds in 26.1 minutes a game during the previous campaign..
However, when it mattered most, Ogemuno-Johnson’s high-effort play style helped him ascend into a force.
In Rider’s storybook run to the semifinal, Ogemuno-Johnson averaged a double-double of 11.3 points and 10.6 rebounds in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In a historic win over top-seeded Iona, Ogemuno-Johnson was crucial in stifling arguably the conference’s most potent offensive center, Iona’s Nelly Junior Joseph.
In his final season, the Broncs will need Ogemuno-Johnson to be the tone-setting, rebound-hogging, figure of dominance that he was for three MAAC Tournament games in Atlantic City.
“I’ve added a little bit more to my game than I had last year. Essentially, now, it’s just keeping it at a high level,” Ogemuno-Johnson said.
Behind Ogemuno-Johnson is a familiar face to him, but an on-court mystery to many others within the Rider community. Tariq Ingraham was a high school teammate of Ogemuno-Johnson’s, and according to Ingraham a large reason why he’s at Rider now.
A three-star recruit by 247Sports, Ingraham initially attended Wake Forest, but has only played one game over the last three seasons due to injuries. Another reason he was forced to sit out was due to NCAA transfer rules which state he can not play for his first year as a transfer. .
“It’s a dark place when you get injured, when you’re out for a whole year and basketball is all that you do, you don’t really know what to do with yourself besides school work and academics,” Ingraham said. “But after that, once I got back in, I appreciated what I had.”
At a thickly built 6-foot-9-inch and over 255 pounds, Ingraham’s an imposing presence that Thompson can see being a potentially dominant presence in the MAAC.
“He has touch within the paint, … he can shoot from outside as well too,” Thompson said. “Him being able to learn the offense, being able to use the things he had at Wake Forest, and getting to that point where you get him the ball inside and see what he can do with it.”
Between Ogemuno-Johnson’s Energizer Bunny playstyle and Ingraham’s ability to bully opponents, Rider has a pair of centers that are not only familiar, but an ideal foil for each other, and project to match up against any interior in the MAAC.
Add in redshirt senior Tyrel Bladen, a 6-foot-10-inch athletic lob threat, the Broncs have a trio of centers to be optimistic in. Bladen, who missed last season due to injury, brings a much needed presence and “nuance” to Baggett’s roster.
“Tariq will be that ground and pound in the post, as where Ajiri will be more finesse and understanding the offense,” Baggett explained. “And Tyrel gives you a combination of both of those guys.”
For a Rider team that has a preseason first-team All-MAAC guard in senior Dwight Murray Jr., as well as a pair of seniors on the third team in guard Allen Powell and forward Mervin James on the third team, the interior is the only missing piece.
“Any time we’ve had good post depth and [a] good post presence, we’ve normally had good seasons,” Baggett said. “It’s important to have good balance across the court, especially in the post.”
With an equilibrium between his back and front court closer to being struck, largely as a result of newfound depth at center, Thompson, who appeared in two MAAC Tournament Championship games himself, knows what it takes to win a title in this conference.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” Thompson said of this year’s Rider team. “If you don’t have the mentality of winning a championship, you shouldn’t be on the floor, so that’s the mentality we’re trying to have.”